Kairouan, historic city of Islam
Kairouan, Tunisia - At the dawn of the 20th century, Swiss-German painter Paul Klee stood at the gates of Kairouan contemplating the scenery. Enamoured by the colours and charm of the town, Klee uttered: “Colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will always possess me, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy moment: Colour and I are one. I am a painter.” The light and colours that the town offered sparked Klee’s artistic breakthrough.
Kairouan fascinated visitors with its rich civilisation and scenery for centuries as it became the cradle for civilisations ranging from the Umayyad to the Aghlabid rules. Located at the centre of Tunisia, the town lies peacefully between sea and mountain.
Kairouan is considered one of the holiest towns in Islam and was the first Islamic capital in the Maghreb. The Arab general and leader of Islamic conquests, Uqba ibn Nafi, crossed the deserts beginning his first Muslim conquest of the Maghreb region. He ordered the setting of a military camp favourable for the strategic positioning of the region.
On that site around 670, Uqba ibn Nafi founded the city of Kairouan as he feared that leaving Ifriqiya would endanger Islam in the region. Soon, the military camp set in a region described as deserted became one of the most powerful Islamic settlements.
“The name ‘Kairouan’ was derived from a Persian word which means ‘a camp’. This reveals the purpose that Uqba ibn Nafi intended for the town, which was to serve as a fortress and a military camp. It became an important centre for Islamic teachings and Quranic learning,” said Loti Aissa, a Tunisian historian.
He added: “Kairouan is a part of the collective memory of Tunisians as the city occupies a part of every Tunisian’s history. Its creation was a founding moment in the history of Tunisians.”
During the centuries that followed, Kairouan became the Islamic capital of the region. Governors of the town were directly appointed by the caliphs and exercised their rule of the region from the town.
Kairouan is best known for its strategic position, and it served as the starting point for many Islamic conquests towards Algeria, Morocco and Spain. Hence, the city became known as one of the most important cities in the Islamic world.
It also became one of the most important cultural centres in the Arab world as it witnessed the flourishing of religious sciences and arts. Being the most ancient Islamic base in the Maghreb, it became a place of teaching religion as well as the Arabic language.
“The moderate Islam that sprung from the teachings of the schools in Kairouan was the product of the concern of the scholars about the consolidation of both the theory and the practice. Scholars in Kairouan advocated an Islam that focused on the application of religion and its teachings on reality and practical problems,” Aissa stated.
“Most of the texts produced by the Islamic scholars of Kairouan were about solving the daily issues through the teachings of Islam. Perhaps one of the most important scholars was Muhammad ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani whose work Al- Risala became one of the most influential texts.”
Kairouan remained the Maghreb’s principal holy city. Today, Kairouan is a UNESCO heritage site.
Protected by walls and gates, the medina of Kairouan has maintained a web of twisting alleys and traditional houses. It contains mosques and shrines that welcome visitors for prayers. Minarets mark the skyline of the town, emphasising the spiritual dimension of the place. The medina quarter hosts souks that sell the carpets, vases and leather products that the town is famous for. The souks are still hubs for tradesmen and visitors.
One of the most important monuments in Kairouan is the Great Mosque of Uqba, which dates to the seventh century.
Considered one of the most important Islamic monuments in the Maghreb, the great mosque is an architectural masterpiece that was founded by Uqba ibn Nafi covering a perimeter of 405 metres. The mosque celebrates Islamic architecture with columns and capitals taken from ruins and containing marble and porphyry along with inscriptions. Not only was the mosque a place for worship, but it was also a centre for education for Islamic and secular sciences.
Kairouan is also known for the Mosque of the Three Gates, which was founded in 866. The mosque stands as a masterpiece of Islamic architecture containing arched doors surmounted by Kufic inscriptions as well as floral and geometric decorations.
The holy town is named for the different sacred places it contains. One of the holiest places in Kairouan is the Mosque of Barber, or the mausoleum of Sidi Sahab, where the shrine of the companion of the Prophet, Abu Zama al- Belaoui, stands. Tiled in colours, the mosque became a place of veneration for Tunisians who seek the blessings of the companion of the Prophet.
Whoever visits Kairouan should not skip the Aghlabid basins. Built during the ninth century, the cisterns are impressive for their engineering sophistication. The Basins of the Aghlabid constitute one of the most beautiful systems conceived to transport water.
During Ramadan, Kairouan restores its charm as an Islamic capital as it becomes a destination for spirituality seekers with religious chanting circles held throughout the month.
Mosques welcome visitors for prayers. The town’s courtyard becomes vibrant with life as many attend prayers in the great mosque and then gather in the courtyard to share coffee and Kairouan’s famous sweets, Makroudh.
“The town of Kairouan is similar to an open-air museum for its richness and diversity. Every corner and every place contain a piece of history. The perimeter of the Medina is the largest, making it an open museum to visitors with activities of a cultural and economic aspect,” Aissa said.